Bears quarterback silences doubters with aerial offense


October 06, 1991|By Don Markus

Most first-round draft choices come into the NFL followed by a stack of favorable press clippings. When Jim Harbaugh joined the Chicago Bears out of the University of Michigan five years ago, he was shadowed only by doubts.

In Harbaugh's case, he wasn't labeled can't-miss. It was more like can't throw. Just another ex-Wolverines quarterback whose glorious past in Ann Arbor would not translate into a bright future in the pros.

Call it guilt by alumni association.

"When one person said it, then everybody said it," Harbaugh recalled last week. "I thought I was underrated. It doesn't matter what school you went to."

In his four-plus seasons with the Bears, Harbaugh has slowly, but steadily, erased the doubts and silenced the critics. Going into today's game against the Washington Redskins in Chicago, Harbaugh is beginning to emerge as one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks.

Harbaugh, 26, is ranked fifth in the NFC in passing efficiency and seventh in the league overall. What is even more surprising has been the throw-first-then-run philosophy of the Bears, who rank second in the conference and fifth in the league in passing offense.

"We always felt he could be a good quarterback," said Greg Landry, Chicago's offensive coordinator and a former NFL quarterback. "When he came here, he probably didn't have the kind of arm you need in the pros. But he's developed a better-than-average arm and, in the past couple of years, a pretty good touch on the ball."

It has not been an easy transition for Harbaugh. Playing behind Jim McMahon and later Mike Tomczak, things got so depressing that Harbaugh volunteered for -- and played on -- Chicago's special teams during part of the 1988 season. If anything, that kind of attitude won over Bears coach Mike Ditka.

But it wasn't until last season, with McMahon gone and Tomczak going, that Ditka handed the quarterback job to Harbaugh. He played effectively, but an injured right shoulder altered his throwing and ultimately forced him to sit out the Bears' last four games.

"I was playing well until I got hurt," said Harbaugh, who was sacked 31 times and threw for 2,178 yards and 10 touchdowns. "But I think I proved that as long as I stayed healthy, I could play in this league. I don't think of myself as a cocky person, and I hope I don't come off that way, but I have a lot of confidence in myself."

Grudgingly, Harbaugh has won the confidence of his teammates and, more importantly, of Ditka. Though Ditka is known to have driven off a few quarterbacks (Tomczak, Doug Flutie), Harbaugh had the advantage of playing for someone just like Ditka -- Bo Schembechler -- at Michigan.

Ditka has gone out of his way to compliment Harbaugh this season, going as far as to recently say that "the quarterbacking has been the best since I've been here, including 1985." Ditka said last week that he was, perhaps, stretching things a bit to return a dig at McMahon.

"I believe Jim Harbaugh has got the potential to be successful, in football and in life," said Ditka. "I think he's a fighter, a back-alley guy, a guy I'd go in a foxhole with. Can he throw the ball with a Dan Marino, a Joe Montana, a John Elway or a Boomer Esiason? I don't know. But there's no question he has the ability."

Though his numbers are up from last year -- including a career-high 303 yards passing three weeks ago against the New York Jets -- Harbaugh's instincts to make the big play have helped the Bears overcome the loss of two injured starters, offensive tackle Jim Covert and fullback Brad Muster, during a 4-1 start.

Harbaugh threw the game's only touchdown in a season-opening victory over the division rival Minnesota Vikings. had the best half of his career -- seven of eight for 162 yards -- to help the Bears beat the New York Giants last month. He directed four touchdowns against the Jets, taking the winning 1-yard dive himself in that crazy overtime do-over.

"Maybe I have made more big plays," said Harbaugh, who has thrown for five touchdowns and has been intercepted three times. "I feel like I'm playing more consistently. Maybe the coaches have put more pressure on to pass the ball more and at crucial times, but a lot of that has to do with our running game."

Said Landry: "He feels a lot more comfortable with the system and the passing game. The thing he's doing better is seeing the field. Last year, and even this year in the preseason, he was taking off [from the pocket] if things broke down. He's really hanging in there now."

Evidence of that came last week in Buffalo. With All-Pro defensive end Bruce Smith manhandling Bears rookie tackle Stan Thomas, Harbaugh was under constant pressure throughout a 35-20 loss to the Bills. Harbaugh never got sacked, and has been sacked only four times so far this season.

This week will provide Harbaugh with a bigger test: a Redskins defense that has shut out the opposition three times this season. But Harbaugh seems undaunted.

Jack Harbaugh, once an assistant at Michigan and now the head coach of Western Kentucky, remembers when his son was 6 years old and somehow found his way into Schembechler's office chair. Bo knows chutzpah.

"Bo came in and asked Jimmy what he was doing in his chair, and Jimmy said, 'Nobody was sitting in it,' " Jack Harbaugh recalled last week. "Bo said to me, 'There's something about that kid I like.' "

.` Something the Bears like, too.

Jim Harbaugh's career statistics

.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Passing.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .Rushing


1987.. .. 6/0.. .. .. .8-11.. .. 62.. .0.. ..0.. .4-15.. .. 0

1988.. .. 8/2.. .. .. 47-97.. ..514.. .0.. ..2.. 19-110.. ..1

1989.. ..12/5.. .. ..111-178.. 1204.. .5.. ..9.. 45-276.. ..3

1990.. ..14/14.. .. .180-312.. 2178.. 10.. ..6.. 51-321.. ..4

1991.. .. 4/4.. .. .. 91-146.. 1070.. .5.. ..3.. 20-82.. .. 1

Totals.. 44/25.. .. .437-744.. 5028.. 20.. .20..139-804.. ..9

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